Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

Baker County District Attorney Matt Shirtcliff told county commissioners last week that he's worried about legislation in Salem which could severely weaken the voter-approved law that requires mandatory minimum prison sentences for people convicted of certain violent crimes.

We share Shirtcliff's concern.

House Bill 3194, whose proponents include Gov. John Kitzhaber, would get rid of mandatory minimum sentences for three felonies: first-degree sex abuse (current minimum of 6 years, 3 months) second-degree robbery (5 years, 10 months) and second-degree assault (5 years, 10 months).

Judges would have the discretion to give convicted criminals shorter sentences.

HB 3194 in effect eviscerates Ballot Measure 11, which Oregon voters approved in 1994.

The three crimes listed above account for about 42 percent of convictions that carry mandatory minimum prison sentences.

To put it another way, if this bill becomes law, an unknown number of people who sexually abused, assaulted or robbed someone in Oregon will be free rather than in prison.

It seems to us that you'd need an awfully compelling reason to justify such a thing.

We've yet to see one that comes even close.

Kitzhaber contends that by continuing the status quo Oregon would, in effect, "be choosing prisons over schools."

The numbers don't bolster the governor's position.

Oregon's prison population did rise substantially in the decade after voters approved Measure 11 - an 85 percent increase from 1995-2005.

But that trend ended long ago.

From 2005 to 2012 the inmate population rose by just 9 percent.

Moreover, we're locking up most of the people who pose the greatest risk to society.

In 2010 Oregon was best in the nation at incarcerating people convicted of violent crimes, with a rate of 67.2 percent (the average, among the 33 states the kept track of this, was 53 percent).

Those are statistics to celebrate, not lament.

Ultimately, the governor's "prisons versus schools" is nothing but a canard.

As he himself knows well, Oregon's most pressing financial problem is not housing violent criminals. We recently applauded Kitzhaber for focusing on a fiscal anchor that's pulling down not only the state, but also cities, counties and school districts: Oregon's Public Employees Retirement System (PERS).

If anything is "unsustainable," to borrow the word Kitzhaber used to describe the state prison system, it's PERS.

The retirement system's burden on public employers statewide grew by $1.1 billion in the current biennium, a figure that makes Kitzhaber's goal of paring $60 million annually from the prison budget over the next decade seem positively paltry.

Oregon's budget woes can't be cured by going easier on violent criminals. Prescriptions such as HB 3194 can, though, make the state less safe.